BOOK REVIEW: Topographies by Stephen Benz

TopographiesTopographies by Stephen Connely Benz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of travel essays exploring locales within America and abroad. The fifteen essays collected are reprints of periodical publications.

As Benz describes destinations and tells travel tales, he often presents local history such as a murder mystery in the Everglades, the fate of the Donner Party, the truth about the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, and the nuclear test at Trinity, New Mexico. But not all of the essays mix history lessons into the travelogue, and some of the most evocative pieces touch on the local landscape in interesting ways such as walking a postman’s route in Havana or camping in Wyoming.

Some travel writing drills down on a single destination and other works spread out over a diverse set of locations. Benz’s approach is somewhere in between. While, except for a couple chapters set in Havana, the essays are about varied locations, only a couple (i.e. the ones on the Everglades and Moldova) stand out as far afield of the rest. Of the seven international essays, three feature Cuba and two Guatemala, and of the eight US essays, all but one is set in the West and three present Wyoming.

The essay collection is divided into two parts. The first eight essays are about locations within the United States, and the last seven describe foreign travels. I found the organization to be smartly arranged, with each of the two parts beginning an ending on essays that are among the strongest in the collection. In the case of Part I, the collection starts with a piece set in the Everglades which brings to life a historical murder, and it ends with a visit to the Trinity Site where the first nuclear test detonation took place.

With respect to the international chapters, they open with a visit to Moldova. The last travel essay I read about Moldova was in Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss.” If you’re wondering why a book on the happiest places on Earth would feature Moldova, it’s for the perhaps ironic but definitely instructive reason that Moldova often comes up as among the LEAST happy countries. Benz presents a similar portrait of Moldova without explicitly taking the dismal nature of the country as his theme. The last two chapters discuss the author’s time in Guatemala, and the last discusses the poetry scene in a country in a country under political upheaval.

The book has a prologue in verse and an extended epilogue in prose.

I’d recommend this book for readers of travel writing, particularly those interested in the American West and Central America. I found the writing to be both skillful and readable, and that the author recognized the value of an intriguing story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

Round Ireland with a FridgeRound Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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When Tony Hawks and his friend Kevin see a man hitching with a refrigerator one night, a debate ensues that results in a ₤100 bet that Hawks can circumnavigate Ireland entirely by hitching rides–while carting a fridge with him. (When Kevin insists that no one could get a lift with a fridge, Hawk’s response sets the book’s tone and theme, “They could in Ireland, it’s a magical place.”) Showing a lack of business acumen, Hawks purchases a compact dorm fridge for ₤130, and sets off from Dublin in a counterclockwise fashion. The rules of the bet stipulate that Hawks must visit Tory island at the extreme north and Clear Island at the extreme south but otherwise can use whatever route he likes as long as he gets around only by hitchhiking, he keeps the fridge with him during his travels, and it takes him less than a month. Hilarity ensues.

Hawks’ book is a hoot. If there is anything that he makes funnier than a person questioning his intelligence / sanity for carting a fridge about, it’s his description of the people who politely ignore the absurdity of him hitching with a fridge. There’s also a fair amount of sour grapes humor as sometimes it seems the fridge has gained more of a celebrity status than the author. Of course, not all the humor is fridge-centric; some of it takes place in pubs with the people the gregarious Hawks meets along the way. The book mixes travelogue with humor writing, and nicely captures both the scenery of Ireland and the national character of the Irish. The book also has its serious moments, particularly as it draws to a close and the author realizes his adventure is at an ends.

In the end, Hawks proves that it can be done—in theory, at least. It should be pointed out that Hawks had the benefit of appearing on a national radio show regularly as well as on TV at the start and finish of his trip. Because of this, people were often on the lookout for him and likely more willing to give him a lift than if he were the average schlub. On the other hand, the need to meet scheduled appointments with media is one of the sources of tension in the book because they usually involve close calls. It seems it’s not always easy to call in from remote locations in rural Ireland while on the move, and the best example may be Hawks’ attempt to make it to Dublin on the last day to meet a PR event that a radio show had set up. He puts the reader on the edge of his seat, despite the lack of any real peril (it is just a guy trying to make media events related to his absurd adventure, after all.)

I’d highly recommend this book. If you’re interested in traveling in Ireland, it’s a light read to give you some ideas about places you might want to hit (or miss.) However, on its humor alone it’s worth a read even for readers who don’t normally read travel writing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings by Matsuo Bashō

Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other WritingsNarrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings by Bashō Matsuo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Bashō was a traveler, and much of his poetry came from what he witnessed and experienced on the road. This volume contains four travelogues (each containing interspersed haiku); the most famous of these being the title piece, but also including: “Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones,” “The Knapsack Notebook,” and “Sarashima Travelogue.” In addition to the travel writings, there is a section of select Bashō poems. The word “travelogue” may create a misapprehension. These weren’t diaries of the minutiae of his travels. They offer a poet’s eye view of highlights and insights, and—of course—interspersed poems. [There is a term for this genre of prose mixed with poetry, haibun.]

Matsuo Bashō was born in Iga-Ueno (famously a center of ninja warriors during the Warring States Period), and traveled extensively within Japan. He lived from 1644 to 1694, during the time between the end of the Warring States Period and the Meiji Restoration that brought Japan into modernity. It was a period of relative peace ruled by a military dictatorship, lying in the long shadow of war. Zen touches are prevalent throughout Bashō’s writings, but so are references to Chinese philosophy and history, Shinto, not to mention the Japanese poets who preceded him.

In addition to the aforementioned content, the book includes some nice ancillary features. First, there is a Translator’s Introduction that helps provide necessary context about Bashō’s life and times, as well as offering insight into what was valued in Japanese poetry of this time–including influences of systems like Zen, Taoism, and Confucianism. There is an Afterword describing the last years of Bashō’s life, as well as end-notes and a bibliography. Notes are useful for this type of book because most readers face both cultural and historical barriers to understanding (myself included.) As for graphics, there is a map to help readers grasp the extent of the poet’s travels. There is also a chronology to help keep the events of Bashō’s life—most notably the timeline of his travels—straight.

I’m not sure how the translator’s (Sam Hamill) version compares to an ideal, but I enjoyed it. For example, Bashō refers to an innkeeper called Hotoke Gozaemon, which Hamill translates as “Joe Buddha.” I suspect that is an example of veering away from literal translation to communicate an essence in a way that is readily grasped by the English-language reader. Some of the haiku translations seem clunky, but it’s extremely hard to put haiku into English, so I can’t say it could be avoided. English syllables and words can be chunky and our grammar doesn’t lend itself to being sparse. I will say that a nice feature of the “Selected Haiku” section is that it includes the Romanized Japanese poem under the translation. This isn’t done throughout the haibun “travelogues,” but it’s done in that last section. The main benefit of this is allowing the reader to hear the sound of the poem, but it can also allow one to compare different translations of the same poem.

There are several translations of these same writings available (often gathered together into a single volume like this because it makes for an acceptable length book–rather than the pamphlets that the individual haibun would be.) This is the only version that I’ve read to date, and so I can’t compare it to others. However, I was quite pleased with this version and found it to be both readable and evocative.

I’d recommend this book for haiku lovers, travelers, and those who want to see what awesome travel writing can look like.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux

The Elephanta SuiteThe Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas that feature Westerners out of their league in India. As an American living in India, I suspect anyone who’s had this experience will recognize instances in which—for good, bad, or a mix of each—one is swallowed whole by some feature of India that one couldn’t possibly have anticipated. The novellas aren’t interconnected, except by way of the themes that run through them and Theroux’s trademark use of what I’ll call—for lack of a better term—cameo references. These aren’t his own cameo appearances in the book—as he’s also been known to do—but rather minor instances in which the lives of the characters in one story brush up against those in another.

The first of the novellas is called “Monkey Hill,” and it features a tourist couple who are staying at an upscale resort that’s near a town with a large Hanuman temple. (Hanuman is the “monkey-god” of Hinduism, a popular deity with a monkey-like face and a man-like body who features prominently in the epic entitled Ramayana.) The resort grounds also have monkeys, and so there are two potential meanings to the title. Like many wealthy travelers to India, the couple isn’t really experiencing India—though, like the characters in the other stories, they end up doing so in a major way by the story’s end. Experiencing India in unexpected ways is a central theme across the three works. The couple’s only real experience of India comes through each of their respective dalliances with locals that are carried out unbeknownst to the other. (I would point out that characters who aren’t particularly high in moral fiber are another prevailing theme across these stories, but really such characters are a hallmark of Theroux’s writing in general.)

“The Gateway of India,” as Bombay visitors might suspect, is set in that city and the waterfront attraction features prominently in the novel. The lead in this story is a business traveler who’s staying in the famous Taj Hotel in Mumbai. (The hotel overlooks the Gateway and was allegedly built by a pissed off J.N. Tata who was irate because, as a Parsi, he wasn’t allowed to stay in any of the upscale hotels because they exclusively catered to Westerners. As a “screw-you,” he built the most elegant hotel in the country at the time.) At the story’s beginning, our business traveler is a caricature of business travelers to India. He’s too scared to eat or drink anything that isn’t from a five-star hotel—and even then he’s wary. He’s filled with disgust whenever he rides through town or interacts with locals in the street. By turns, he’s transformed over the course of the story. Like the couple in “Monkey Hill” his introduction to the real India comes from a sexual liaison with a native. That said, this story features the most positive character transformation of the three stories. This is the one “feel-good” transformation of the three.

The final novella, entitled “The Elephant God,” begins in Mumbai, but is largely set in Bangalore. This story features yet another class of traveler to India–the backpacker. This lead is a young woman who is traveling on a tight budget while staying at an ashram. Beginning the story in Mumbai allows the reader to see how the backpacker loses her traveling companion, an issue that will prove crucial to the story’s resolution. As one might expect of a backpacker, our protagonist has had a truer experience of India than the wealthy protagonists of the other stories. She knows a little of the indigenous culture and how real people behave faced with real world events. In fact, there’s an intriguing piece of the story line that involves a job she gets teaching English to employees of a call center for a multinational corporation. [It should strain credulity that she’d be able to get a job on the visa she would have, but this is India.] At any rate, she begins to realize that—by teaching the call-takers to speak to American customers in a way that will make Americans comfortable—she’s essentially turning them rude—all their endearing deferential mannerisms fade in the face of her teachings. She feels bad about this. The titular reference involves an elephant and its handler (mahout) that she befriends. (In two years living in Bangalore, I’ve not seen an elephant living inside the city, but I can’t say that I found this aspect of the story unbelievable. I have seen, for example, the equally improbable camel or two.) The elephant isn’t a major feature of the story until the climax, though visits do recur.

I enjoyed these stories and would recommend The Elephanta Suite–particularly for any Westerners who have spent, or plan to spend, substantial time in India. The book may not surprise or inform such readers, but it’ll probably resonate with them.

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WRITING DEVICES: The Author Cameo in A Dead Hand

I’ll soon finish reading a novel by Paul Theroux called A Dead Hand. I won’t get into the details of the book in this post because I’ll do a review later, but there’s a writing device in it that really intrigued me. Theroux inserts himself into the novel in a cameo role as a competitor to the protagonist. That is to say, the main character is a traveling writer who writes mostly magazine articles, while Theroux a prolific writer famous for travelogues such as The Great Railway Bazaar and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,  as well as for many novels which are written with a travel writer’s sensibility for location. (A Dead Hand takes place in and around Calcutta, India.)

I enjoyed the author cameo. It would only work well for a writer like Theroux, one who is both well-known and, because of his nonfiction work, who readers have a feel for as a person. Still, I couldn’t think of another novel I’ve read in which this has been done. I’ve only read Theroux’s nonfiction so far, so maybe this is a running gag with him.

Inserting himself offers some opportunity for adding humor. For example, there’s a part in which the main character’s friend, who is also a go-between who introduces the two writers, says, “He [Theroux] said he wanted to take the train from Battambang to Phnom Penh.”

To which the main character replies, “He would. The bus is quicker!”

This technique also gives one the impression that we are getting some inside insight into the writer. When the main character mistrusts the author, how are we to process that?

Granted it’s a little like an actor looking into the camera and talking straight to the audience.

I’m interested to hear if this is a more widespread technique than I’m aware of? Who else does this?

BOOK REVIEW: Smile When You’re Lying by Chuck Thompson

Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel WriterSmile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Smile When You’re Lying gives the reader an insider’s view of the deceit rife in travel writing. In the process, Chuck Thompson tells a story of life on the vagabonding circuit. Instead of being a story of idyllic and pristine white sand beaches, it’s the story of drug- and booze-riddled expats and the prostitutes they frequent.

Thompson lived a colorful life. He tells of how his interest in Thailand began when he heard stories while in a jail in Alaska. He introduces cast of characters, such as Shanghai Bob, many of who are even more colorful than he. It’s this wild living that makes the book an interesting read, but, ironically, it also makes such stories impossible to sell to any of the travels magazines–all of which make money off of advertiser dollars, advertisers who have an interest in making travel seem safe, clean, and family-friendly.

Thompson tells of how he began teaching English in Japan, a common point of origin for expats taking to Asia. Japan has a large and well-developed program, called JET, that brings native English speakers to Japan to teach language or work in government offices as translators.

In addition to the intro on Thailand, a chapter on his Alaskan youth,and one on his JET days, there are chapters on Latin America, the Caribbean, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, there is a chapter that lends travel advice for aspiring travel writers and one about what travel mags don’t want readers to know. It should be noted that besides having written for such magazines, Thompson did a stint as an editor as well.

Thompson also devotes a chapter to countering the myth that Americans are–on the whole–bigger travel bastards than the people of other Western nations.

If you are interested in travel writing or vagabonding, this is a worthwhile read.

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